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Mayday: How to Call for Help During a Boating Emergency

How to Radio for Help in a Life-Threatening Emergency
Boating Safety

If a helicopter is dispatched, be sure to secure all loose items on deck (helicopter rotor wash is very powerful and unsecured items may turn into flying projectiles.)  Lower and secure any sails, remove any equipment that may snag the line attached to the rescue basket, and make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. The helicopter is likely to approach your boat on the port stern quarter, because it gives the pilot optimal visibility from the cockpit.  So unless instructed otherwise, set your course so that the wind is 45 degrees off your port bow.  Remember, never shine a light or strobe directly toward the helicopter, and never fire flares in the vicinity of the helicopter.  Wait for the rescuers to tell you what to do, and then do it.  In any emergency situation, listening may be your most important skill.

Recently the Coast Guard began implementing a new command, control and communications system – Rescue 21 – which is now being installed in stages across the United States.  It will vastly improve the Coast Guard’s ability to save lives and property.  (For more information see Harnessing global positioning and other advanced communications technology, this fully integrated system will cover coastlines, navigable rivers and waterways in the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico, and help eliminate 88 known radio coverage gaps.

No new equipment is needed for you to benefit from Rescue 21, but you can help improve response time by upgrading to a Marine-Band VHF-FM radio equipped with digital selective calling (DSC). When properly registered with a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number and interfaced with GPS, the DSC radio signal transmits vital information – vessel name, position, owner/operator’s name and the nature of the distress (if entered) – with one push of a button.

The U.S. Coast Guard is always ready to render aid to boaters facing extreme and imminent danger.  Your best bet, however, is to reduce your risk of finding yourself in a dire situation in the first place. Keep your vessel’s hull, motor and on-board equipment in top condition. At the start of the boating season, get a Vessel Safety Check, offered free by your local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadron® or state boating agency.  Take a basic seamanship course and additional instruction as necessary to ensure that your boating skills match the requirements of your vessel.  Finally, insist that everyone on board wear a life jacket at all times on the water.  Life threatening emergencies can happen in a heartbeat.  Having a life jacket on increases everyone’s chances of survival.

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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit

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